We have to get out of here fast. It’s now or never, especially since we could run into Dag getting off work. It’s dangerous, but on the way out of town I stop by his cabin to drop off a goodbye letter. The kids print and scribble pictures in the margins. Maya picks up a crab apple, then writes, “Dag, you are like this little apple: sweet on the outside but sour on the inside. ’Bye. Maya.”
He may be in time to see the picture it makes: the afternoon sunlight on the rough wood of his cabin’s doorsill, the red crab apple, the white envelope.
He will have no idea which way we went, but adrenalin is still driving me, east on a two-lane highway. Dark evergreens flash by, near and far, near and far, with an occasional cabin or historical shack blending into the gathering darkness. I don’t have my glasses, but I can drive all right. Oh, yes. More or less. I am good at guessing, and the kids help with the important details.
Patrick and Heidi are happy because we stop at a restaurant. Every table has a chrome edge and a jukebox. I have an earache, my nose is stuffed up, and I feel like I just robbed a bank. I cashed Dag’s paycheck and took our only car, but it’s more than that. This turn of events and all these lives are on my shoulders.
I don’t even know how sick the kids are.
After the very American dinner, Maya points to the cabin motel next door and says, “It’s dark enough.” So, even though we haven’t gone very far, we go over and check in.
Now that I am free, no one can stop me from choosing to sit in a hot bath, where I try to give myself an acupressure treatment. From the book I pick “The Dynamo: for relief and recharge.” Who knows, it might work, although the only way I can locate an acupressure point is through touch, and blind luck. I can still see the look on Dag’s face the time I tried to calm him down with an acupressure treatment called Sexual Peace. He had his eyebrows stuck in a raised position, the way he does when he’s trying to smooth out the anger wrinkles, so he looked kind of surprised and red-faced at the same time. It’s easy to tell when he’s tense. I worked slowly. I was a little tense myself. After a while, his face turned a darker red, and his eyebrows fell back down so that the anger wrinkles between them came back, but still I didn’t give up, until he exploded: “WHY NOT JUST FUCK?” Then the kids woke up.
On the third morning, after a night in what the kids call “a big motel with a swimming pool in it,” our car won’t start. The engine keeps stalling. I get out and see that we have a flat, too. There’s no spare, but the tire is patchable. Once the flat is fixed, the car starts and doesn’t stall again. If the car had started the first time, I would have driven on the flat tire and ruined it. I take this as a sign that life is inherently friendly — in strange ways, of course. You never know. You can say that there must be some logical explanation, but in the big picture, logic just doesn’t cut it. Logic depends on causes, and no one has ever gotten to the last why in the infinity of whys. It’s like the story of the old lady who comes up to the great philosopher William James after his lecture and says, “That’s all very well, Mr. James, but you know the earth is actually resting on the back of a turtle.”
“And what is that turtle resting on?” he says.
“And what is that turtle resting on?”
“It’s no use, Mr. James; it’s turtles all the way down!”
We go ninety miles an hour across a big, flat state. Since we can only afford so many nights in motels, I am taking caffeine pills. Every once in a while I let out a James Brown shout. We pass a camouflage jeep, full of camouflage guys. “Cool!” Maya says. A little while later, in the middle of nowhere, a police car flashes its lights and pulls us over. I tell the policeman my story, and he says, “Mm-hm, I see. Since you’re from out of state, I can’t just give you a speeding ticket; we’ll have to go see the judge. But it’s almost after hours. If the judge isn’t in, we might have to put you in jail and put the kids in a foster home for the night. You just follow me back into town.”
He makes a U-turn across a double yellow line.
“Hey, that’s illegal!” Patrick says. “Hypocritical scuzbucket!”
As I turn the car around, the kids make faces, mimic the policeman, and call him obscene names. Maya has just finished reading The Monkey Wrench Gang. “I bet those camouflage guys turned us in!” she says. As far as I’m concerned, this situation hints of Kafka possibilities, absurd danger, so I’m gathering together all the polite respect I can muster. You just never know when your lighthearted joke is going to be someone else’s last straw.
It turns out the judge is there after all, in the courthouse on the square, up a big, wide set of stairs. She sits up high and says, “Ma-mwuh ma-mwuh mum mwuh-wuh.”
“Yes, Your Honor, but we have just enough money to get to my sister’s house in Indiana. If I pay this ticket today, we’ll be stranded.”
“Ma-mwuh, then mum mwuh, but mum mwah by mwah-mwah and no later.”
“Yes, I will. Thank you. Your Honor.”
I go the speed limit, at least until we get out of that state, even though it rankles on such a flat, open road.
After dark we flash our brights at all the trucks, and they flash back: Hello. We’re out here. When the scenery starts looking like Chicago, it occurs to me that we are driving into an unknown city with all our worldly possessions, which could be inviting trouble. I have to be more careful, stop attracting attention.
After pulling off into a fluorescent mirage of a gas station, we drive up a hill to get back on the freeway. At the top I start to turn, but Heidi yells, “NO! STOP! IT’S NOT A ROAD! IT’S THE EDGE!” My night vision is even worse than my day vision.
One thing about this trip is a lot of music, loud; Maya turns it up to help us stay awake. Is that a new song, “Working in a Coal Mine”? We’re in Chicago now, and I meet my first rotary, a freeway that spirals around like a cinnamon roll — you think you’re going around in a circle, but you keep ending up in a different place, and there are always cars in the way when you need to exit. I think I see the exit as we drive past. When we pass it again, I squint and say, “Look, that was the exit.” The third time around, Maya says, “That was the exit!” In the meantime the radio is playing great, complicated drums, along with a baritone voice saying, “Lord, I am so tired! How long can this go on?” The fifth or sixth time around, Patrick shouts, “THAT WAS THE EXIT!” After that, we all scream, “THAT WAS THE EXIT!” And then, finally, we are in the right place at the right time.
This will be our last motel. I see now that I probably shouldn’t take caffeine pills. I have to hold tight to the registration desk because my legs may quit. My arms and hands are shaking, and my heart is jumping. I hope none of this is as obvious as it feels. The clerk has thick glasses and his shirt is buttoned all the way up, and whatever I look like is apparently nothing new.
It’s not long before we are at my sister Bethany’s. She has a respectable, intelligent sort of apartment, with an old and well-polished upright piano, a hammered dulcimer, gleaming deep blue coffee mugs, hardwood floors. But it’s just one room, and we fill it with our rolling ball of dust and contradictions: travel-shocked and crumpled, but spunky and happy, too, with our hearts dragging behind us, ragged and obvious.
The phone rings like a bullet on the ricochet. Bethany looks over at me as she answers it. Every day it’s been Dag, and it must be Dag again, because now she’s turned toward the window as if she were hiding a knife from the kids, and saying, “No. No. I have no idea. I’m sure they’re OK. No. No. OK. No. I have to go now. ’Bye.”
My sister, my friend. A little more time to breathe.
“Hey, Bethany,” I say, “guess who found a place? Half of a big, old house. Actually it’s pretty ugly, but at least it has hardwood floors and high ceilings and a fireplace. We can always put posters over the really big cracks.”
“What about money?”
“I don’t know. That’s what I have to figure out next! . . . I mean, I have some of it . . . and the landlord’s taking it on trust, so we can move in.”
“I’ve barely had time to go crazy yet,” Bethany says.
We are sleeping on the floor, and I am looking for a job, looking for a job, looking for a job. When you have only seven dollars left, you are supposed to be looking for a job. The first interview is always the worst, I think. The ad calls for a daytime governess; sure, I could do that.
I find the address, an old stone house up a bank from a crumbling sidewalk. The curb is high, right up next to the door of my sturdy old Dodge. When I open the door, it catches on the high curb and gets stuck.
There is no simple way to explain how I close my own head in the door. These things happen. Anyone can tell you. To start with, I am pushing on the door and looking down at the curb at the same time. And it turns out the door wasn’t that jammed. It takes just one second of not noticing that my head is in the way for me to get a golf-ball-shaped bruise on my forehead. Two seconds to stagger and reel, and then twenty steps to climb. I lean against the handrail to collect myself, groping for normality like someone reaching for glasses in the dark.
It’s the kind of bump on the head that makes your stomach hurt, but I’m not quite sick. My stomach is hurting and sort of smiling at the same time.
Here is the doorbell, and here are the crisp clothes of a woman who must never sit down. My forehead could make a bad impression, so I am covering it with my hand. Her voice is framed in healthy black hair that swings around her face: “Oh, dear, what happened? Are you all right?”
“Uh, I think so. I just bumped my head on the car door. I’m here for the interview?”
“Oh, come in! Lie down on the couch and I’ll get an ice pack for your head.”
The woman and a man pull their chairs up close to the couch so that I don’t have to turn my head much to see them.
“You see, actually, we’re two couples; we’re creating this position together. I am the wife of one and he is the husband of the other.”
“Oh,” I say helpfully, my hand still holding the ice pack on my forehead. The air is full of baby smells: baby powder, baby oil, baby shampoo, the innocent smell of freshly loaded diapers.
“Our child is ten months old.”
“And ours is eighteen months,” he says.
“Mm-hm,” I say.
“But they are not actually here right now,” she adds.
That’s good, I think.
The two of them talk around my ice pack, very polite, although if I had my wits I would question the absent-children situation. But I am too busy trying to look as if my horizontalness is ultimately irrelevant, given my marked employability. I try to remember that I must want this job.
I must want this job.
The man says, “There are some food allergies, but we can sort those out as we go. The main idea is to have the sort of care that would involve an education, because we really believe in that.”
“Oh, I’ve spent some time in college, and I have . . . ten years’ experience in child-raising.” My words seem gaspy, and my thoughts seem wispy, like an unfinished impressionist painting. But most of all I want to laugh: has anyone ever educated two temporarily abandoned babies — babies who don’t know the meaning of temporary; babies wrapped in hunger, colic, tantrums, and wet diapers? But I can be polite; these are new parents, after all.
“Of course,” the woman says, “the next step would be to actually meet our babies.”
“Yes. Did I say how dedicated I could be? I’ve just relocated here after leaving my husband. I think I could put my all into it. I have a lot of experience, too.”
Soon there is nothing left to do but smile and nod politely as I step out the door with their best wishes. Holding on to the handrail, I walk gingerly back down the steps to the car. I get out my keys, but now I see that I have no wallet. Back up the stairs: not in the house, not on the porch or the stairs or the sidewalk, or in the gutter.
I get into the car, where I can cry, and decide to drive around the corner and up a few blocks to my other sister’s apartment. I climb her many stairs, keeping up a pretty good appearance until she opens the door and I practically fall in. Soon afterward, she opens her liquor cabinet, and a short glass of ice is clinking and crackling with whiskey, and there are two aspirins in her open hand. I am too dignified to actually blubber out my whole story, but she understands enough that her checkbook comes out next: twenty-seven dollars for my kids’ school fees — not that easy for her.
By the time I leave, I really don’t feel all that bad. Even though she has hundreds of steps.